Maggie Blaine Smith is not one to pivot. At least with regard to things she holds close to her heart. But apparently there is one thing that can make her change her stance on a subject.
In A Good Community, there is a scene between Eli and Maggie in their bedroom. While Maggie is in the process of fretting about the possibility of daughter Frankie moving far away after she marries Patrick, Eli inadvertently brings up a subject that seems to make things worse. We open with Maggie speaking.
“[Frankie is] going to fly away; I just know it. If she goes west, we might never see her again. That’s why I had that dream. She’s leaving! Our house is going to become empty!”
“Now, now,” he cooed. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Besides, when Frankie and Patrick get married, we’ll probably have grandchildren. And let’s not forget Liddy and Phil. They’re good and married now. A grandbaby might be on the way even as we speak.”
Maggie sat up, appalled. “A grandbaby? When we’ve got a six-year-old son?” She gestured at the crib near the fireplace. “And a babe in arms? I’m not ready for grandchildren! I am not old enough.”
He couldn’t help but chuckle. “Why, that’s the vainest thing I’ve ever heard come out of your mouth, Mrs. Smith. You certainly are old enough. We just got a late start on our own family.”
That’s right. Maggie is not ready to be a grandmother! The prospect of grandmother-hood is daunting. It signifies that time is marching on and she is moving into being an older woman.
A Good Community is set in the spring-summer of 1864. Maggie is 43, and Eli is 44. Now, I know that these days the Smiths would be considered early middle aged. But life expectancy in the United States in 1864 was 39.41 years. A year later, thanks to the Civil War, it dropped to 35. (https://www.statista.com/statistics/1040079/life-expectancy-united-states-all-time/)/
Of course, some people did live into what we consider to be old age. However, in general people tended to die earlier and in greater numbers than in the twentieth century. Infant and child mortality was also high. Our ancestors knew all too well what we in the current COVID-19 crisis are re-learning: that health and life are fleeting, and we never know when our time will come.
So, becoming grandparents is a clear reminder to Maggie and Eli that their youth is now behind them, even though they are only in their 40s. Despite having a deep faith, Maggie encounters mixed feelings about the changes she is facing.
Maggie believes she is going through menopause, as her “monthlies,” as she calls them, are now quite irregular. My research shows that women in the 19th century seem to have experienced menopause a bit earlier than we do now, and it would not be unreasonable that Maggie would be menopausal at her age. Despite that obvious reminder, Maggie also is a new mother and Faith, her “change of life” child, is still a baby. Bob, the little boy whom she and Eli have adopted, is six years old. Another good reason to ignore her age. But she cannot ignore the fact the daughters she had with John Blaine – Lydia (22) and Frankie (18) – are young women, becoming independent, and that she must renegotiate her relationship with them.
Ever since the novella, The Great Central Fair, I have known something that only is revealed in my new work-in-progress, tentatively called Epidemic. Lydia is pregnant. The first person she reveals this to is her mother, Maggie. Their conversation is a mix of joy and concern as well as Lydia’s very real concerns about balancing motherhood and a career as a physician. Maggie does the mother-thing and seeks to reassure her daughter.
Shortly after their encounter ends, this occurs:
They were interrupted by a knock on the door.
“Are you all right in there?” It was Eli’s voice.
Maggie grinned at her daughter for consent and received a happy nod. “We’re fine,” she called as she strode to the door.
As Maggie threw the door open, Eli was taken aback by her combination of a wide grin and teary eyes. He cocked a confused eyebrow at her. After an awkward pause, he ventured, “What’s wrong, sweetheart?”
“Oh, my love,” Maggie impulsively gushed, “you’ll never guess! We are going to become grandparents.”
Eli’s mouth dropped open. “Grandparents? How?”
She laughed. “How does one usually become a grandparent? In this case, it is our Lydia. Eli, she’s expecting!”
Eli craned his neck to see Lydia. Eyes also tear-stained, she nodded at him in confirmation. Then she blew her nose again.
“So you’re both crying,” Eli began. “And you’re crying because…?”
“Well, it's simple, Eli. We’re crying because we’re happy.”
This confused him further. “But a few months ago, told me you weren’t ready to be a grandmother.”
“I know!” Maggie could not stop grinning. “I was wrong.”
Eli did not know what to do with the news. If Maggie was going to be a grandmother, then… “But I…” he stammered, “I don’t think I’m ready to be a grandfather.”
Maggie laughed loudly. “Elijah! Neither you nor I have a choice in the matter.”
And there you have it. Life can and does thrust on us that for which we are not yet prepared. In Maggie’s case, she made an easy pivot. She loves babies. She loves her daughter. And so she will embrace the change.
But we shouldn't be surprised. Maggie has needed to negotiate many changes in her life. She was disowned by her family after she married John Blaine, she watched her first husband and child die from disease, and she learned how to make her own way in the world. Her mettle was tested when the pastor of her church sinned and was put on trial. She dealt with chaos and fear when war came to Gettysburg. She helped those injured in a riot, And she addressed angry town folk after Blaineton’s Great Fire of 1864. In the new book, Maggie is running for Town Council and becoming a grandmother. And yet, somehow, I think she’s got this.
The more I write, the more Maggie teaches me how a woman of faith walks through life. Sometimes she even dances, runs, or crawls through it. But she has faith, friends, and family, and thus never does it alone. I hope this is the same for me and for you. And that we know it, as well.
Stay safe and well, friends,
Janet R. Stafford
I know. It's hard to believe, but this beautiful, sweet creature is actually kind of disgusting.
The photo above is my dog, Vida. Some of you may recall that I adopted her in late September, about 5 months after I had lost my mini Aussie shepherd Tippy to bone cancer.
Before becoming my companion, Vida had been in three shelters. Previous to that she had been a stray. No one knows what she was before that. All I know is that she is remarkably sweet, loving, and good doggie. And yet, she’s also disgusting.
As difficult as social distancing has been for me, it is more so for Vida. That's because dogs are not known for keeping their distance, something which annoys the heck out of Dan’s cat, Pantera. Vida will come right up to him and stick her nose on him – usually on his butt. This is not part of the Cat Code of Etiquette, which Vida has never read because, well, she can't read. Under normal circumstances, Pantera would hiss and back off. But things have changed for all species lately.
A while ago, I stopped by Dan's house, with Vida in tow, to drop something at off. Dan and I stood at a safe distance from each another. Under normal circumstances, if you love someone, you hug and kiss the other person. But now things have taken an abrupt 180-degree turn. If you love someone you CANNOT hug and kiss the other person. Does that now mean we should embrace and smooch our enemies? The mind boggles.
Anyway, dogs don’t know from social distancing. All Vida knew is that she hadn't seen Pantera in a long time. So she did what dogs do best: she ran right up to him and stuck her nose on his butt to get a good whiff and assure herself that this black kitty was indeed her good buddy, Pan.
Amazingly, Pantera did not hiss, swipe a paw at Vida, or walk away. He merely put up with the abuse, although his facial expression and body posture clearly were screaming, “Dogs are so disgusting! But I’ll submit because it’s been a long time and I kind of miss this dopey creature.”
Pantera is right. Dogs are disgusting. After all, they lick their own undercarriage. And they’ll lick yours, too, if they can get close enough.
Dogs also eat the poo of any other species, not to mention their own. It’s true. I have seen Vida drop a load, turn around, sniff it, and then attempt to sample it. Erghh.
As gross as that seems, scientists tell us that sense of smell is how dogs understand the world. “While humans primarily depend on their vision, dogs use both sight and smell to assess their surroundings and communicate. People spend more time interpreting visual data than olfactory information. Dogs are just the opposite” (Lynn Buzhardt, DVM, “How Dogs Use Smell to Perceive the World,” https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/how-dogs-use-smell-to-perceive-the-world).
The world to dogs is a wonderland of scents. According to Dr. Buzhardt, “Dogs devote lots of brain power to interpreting smells. They have more than 100 million sensory receptor sites in the nasal cavity as compared to 6 million in people, and the area of the canine brain devoted to analyzing odors is about 40 times larger than the comparable part of the human brain. In fact, it’s been estimated that dogs can smell anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 times better than people”
This may explain why, when I take Vida for a walk, she spends a great deal of her time sniffing the ground and responding to what she sniffs by peeing on it or near it.
All dogs engage in this “marking” activity, something that was obnoxiously true of Gremlin, my 18-20-pound terrier. Gremmy was so alpha that she would pee ON another dog’s mark just to prove who was boss (or so it seemed).
Thus, I have come to believe that marking territory with pee actually is a form of communication and intimidation. And, while humans only recently have attempted to do this through social media, dogs have it down to a science and have been doing it since… well, since they were dogs.
I call this activity “Doggie Peebook.” The following is what I think goes on in a typical Doggie Peebook post:
Dog #1: Hi! My name is Tootsie. I’m a spayed female who loves treats and squeaky toys.
Dog #2: I’m Frank. I’m a 7-year-old, neutered hound mix who enjoys chasing rabbits and hates squirrels. Squirrels are so offensive!
Dog #3 You don’t know sh*t, Frank. Squirrels aren’t half as offensive as birds. I hate birds. Signed, Bruno.
Dog #1: Don’t get your hackles up, Bruno. Frank was just stating his opinion.
Dog #3: Don’t tell me what to do, Tootsie. I can take you down.
Dog #1: Like to see you try, Bruno. You smell like a chihuahua. I’m a German shepherd. I could make a snack outta you.
Dog #3: Hey, Tootsie, I just peed all over your first post. You’re deleted, loooser!
Dog #2: Got some news for you, Bruno. I just peed all over YOUR post. Deleted, baby! Who da dog now?
Dog#1: You da dog, Frank!
Hmmm… maybe dogs are more like humans than I previously thought…
Whether or not Vida is disgusting, I do love to talk to her. I do it all the time. A friend recently let me know that talking to my dog was all right as long as Vida doesn't start replying. But, seriously, Vida has developed into a such dang good conversationalist, why stop now?
Anyway, whether you are sheltering alone or with humans, dogs, cats, or any other critter, I hope you’re hanging in there and staying well. We’ll get through this. We may not be sane by the time that happens, but we’ll get through it. (As you can see, I’ve already lost the battle.)
Janet R. Stafford
Image: Mary Mallon, aka Typhoid Mary, she was active around 40-50 years after the characters portrayed in the Saint Maggie series. But she still has a connection. Read more about her story:
I am preparing to write the next novel in the Saint Maggie series and have decided that the main plot will revolve around an outbreak of Typhoid Fever that starts in the dormitory at Josiah Norton’s uniform factory and woolen mill.
This disease was prevalent during the Civil War, and especially common in the military. As I noted in a blog post in March, typhoid fever is caused by Salmonella typhi bacteria and is spread through “contaminated food and water or through close contact with someone who's infected. Signs and symptoms usually include a high fever, headache, abdominal pain, and either constipation or diarrhea.” People infected with Salmonella typhi bacteria can pass it on through feces and sometimes in urine. An individual can contract typhoid fever by eating food prepared by an infected person who hasn’t washed their hands after defecating or urinating. Infection also can occur by drinking contaminated water. Without treatment, the disease can be life-threatening.”
Before the invention of modern sewage systems, typhoid was common in the United States. Prior to 1920, typhoid fever occurred in 100 out of every 100,000 people.
It wasn’t until the 1880s that scientists realized that bacteria was somehow involved in typhoid fever. A diagnostic test was developed in 1896, followed by a vaccine in 1897, but the perfected vaccine was not developed until 1909.
As you can see, in 1864, a vaccine for typhoid fever is 45 years away.
Today, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we hear over and over again to wash our hands. The idea of washing one’s hands to protect against infection was nearly unheard of in 1864 and the idea of germs embryonic.
In 1846, Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian physician, was appointed as an assistant to Professor Johan Klein at the First Obstetrical Clinic at Vienna General Hospital. In 1847, Klein died after he had been stuck with a scalpel during a postmortem examination. During the post-mortem, Semmelweis noticed that Klein’s body had a pathology similar to that of women who had died of puerperal fever. Upon further investigation, he saw that the rate of death among the patients of student midwives was noticeably lower than that of the patients of medical students, who performed autopsies as well as their maternity work. Semmelweis concluded that the infection was caused by “cadaverous material” and advised all students to wash their hands with a solution of chlorinated lime (calcium hypochlorite).
In Walk by Faith, set in 1863, midwife Adela Edler, who is German, instructs her new assistant Lydia Blaine Lape, to wash her hands with the chlorinated lime solution while attending laboring mothers and cites Semmelweis’ work as her reason for requiring hand washing.
What Adela does not yet know is that in France, chemist Louis Pasteur is trying to figure out why beverages like milk, whine, and beer go bad, and eventually comes to the realization it was caused by the growth of micro-organisms. In 1865, Pasteur patented a process called pasteurization that stops the growth of the micro-organisms. From there, it was a short hop to proposing that micro-organisms also could infect the bodies of humans and animals and could be stopped, as well.
The point is my characters for the most part live in a culture that generally is unaware of germ theory, the power of cleanliness, the proper disposal of human and animal waste, and so on. But lack of knowledge was not located to the mid-1800s.
As I pointed out in the March blog, cook Mary Mallon (“Typhoid Mary,” 1869-1938), was an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever and in the early 1900s spread the disease to 51 people, three of whom died. Mallon, of course, was the most publicized case of asymptomatic carriers of typhoid fever, but she was not alone in transmitting the typhoid fever through food handling.
Now… why would a dormitory at a factory be a breeding ground for typhoid fever? The answer is found in Seeing the Elephant, when Eli Smith takes a tour of Norton Mill #3, located to Blaineton’s south. At one point, Josiah Norton explains that most of his workers live in dormitories since the mill is located some distance from Blaineton. The tour is a real eye-opener for Eli.
The refectory in the first building smelled of cabbage, slightly rancid meat, and oatmeal and milk that had been left out too long. Eli’s gag instinct wanted to come into play but having experience with the stench of death on the battlefield, he pushed it back down. He was relieved nonetheless when Josiah led him up a set of rickety stairs to the dormitory floor.
The sleeping quarters turned out to be a big room with several rows of beds that possessed faded, dirty quilts and pillows. This too smelled, but of human sweat and unwashed clothing. The room was chilly, but that was no surprise since the walls had not been plastered over and there was no sign of a stove or fireplace. In addition, daylight readily peeked through the cracks and holes and the walls. The floorboards also had gaps, one of which was large enough for Eli to see the refectory below. He wondered exactly just what kind of “cosmetic” changes Norton had made.
So, two books ago the stage was set for the major outbreak of a disease. How the town of Blaineton and Maggie’s friends and family deal with it will make up the main plot.
I’ll be back with another blog on Friday or Saturday.
Meanwhile, be patient and kind to one another, and practice love.
 “Typhoid Fever,” Patient Care & Health Information, Diseases & Conditions, Mayo Clinic, 31 July 2018. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/typhoid-fever/symptoms-causes/syc-20378661
I’m working on a new story. It’s a long-form novel which will be #6 in the Saint Maggie series. Bear with me, because I’m going to be going all the way from creating a character to dances and music of the 19th century to typhoid fever.
First of all, in the new book, I will introduce a new character by the name of Shelby Garrison, who is a traveling musician. He came into being when my friends, who are members of the admin team at a fan group for Jack Black and Tenacious D, challenged me to put a Kyle Gass-type of character into the story. They knew I had borrowed Eli Smith’s appearance, speech pattern, and a few behavioral quirks from Jack Black and wanted to know where Jack’s buddy was. I tried to explain that Eli already has two good buddies, Chester Carson and Nate Johnson, but they kept saying, "... but Kyle..." So I caved.
Allow me to note that over the years Eli Smith has developed into a well-rounded character and reminds me of that on a regular basis. Fictional characters can and do take on a reality for their authors. They exist only in our heads but are, as I’ve heard many of us say, “invisible friends” with whom we like to play. Yes, we are nuts, hopelessly so. But we’re harmless nuts.
Also, when I write a character, it helps to have an image or voice or attitude in my head when I write. Most of my characters either look like or sound like other people, and most of those take after people I know, rather than celebrities. One good example of this is Chester Carson, who is actually a composite character. That means he looks like a friend of mine but speaks like a friend of my friend. Because of that, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when Carson (who hates to be called Chester) “came out” to Eli in the Walk by Faith. And why not? Both of his models also identify as gay.
At the moment, Shelby looks and has a voice that sounds like Kyle Gass to me, plus he’s a musician who plays guitar. But he rapidly is becoming as his own person. In fact, he’s doing it even in his first scene, where he is coming across as a courtly, although impoverished fellow. He feels more like someone from a Mark Twain story than one half of Tenacious D. And that’s good, because we’re in Civil War era America. There’s no metal in the Saint Maggie series, other what is found in cannon and other weaponry!.
Because I write historical fiction, I often need to stop and run to the internet for information to make sure I’m being historical. Working with Shelby has been no exception. The process started yesterday when I began researching the type of songs he might have sung. So, I combed the internet for mid-19th century songs and spent time compiling a little list of things for Shelby.
Another situation arose when in that first chapter Rosa Hamilton suggests that Shelby not only play for the Greybeal House family that evening but provide them with some dance music. So… back I went to the internet. It is amazing what you can find there. I came upon at least three YouTube videos with people doing dances from the 1800s.
Of course, writing about a music and dance in the Civil War era is not completely new to me. When I was working on Seeing the Elephant, Maggie and Eli were invited to a ball at the home of industrialist Josiah Norton. At the time I found a very useful article on how to put on a 19th century ball. I was able to use the information as a model for the ball scene at Norton’s house. And – huge plus – if I ever get the yen to hold a 19th century ball of my own, I’ll know what to do. Now, where did I leave my crinoline cage and corset?
I learned that formal balls had a number of conventions, including the Grand March during which everyone entered the ballroom, and the first dance (often a waltz), followed by a plethora of dance styles. Also, gentlemen could not simply ask a lady to dance, rather they asked to write their names on the dance card attached by a ribbon to her wrist. They then would be assured of having at least one dance during the course of the evening.
Although Maggie, Eli’s wife, spent many years running a boarding house, she actually comes from a well-to-do family. The evening at the ball opens Eli’s eyes about this side of Maggie’s history as he watches her from the sidelines. And, the poor guy indeed is sidelined in the truest sense of the word. If you have read the series, you’ll know that an encounter with a bullet to his left leg has left Eli with a limp and pain (probably caused by ligament damage). He is forced to use a cane to get safely around. Thus, he spends much of the evening watching his wife dance with other men. It’s not a happy experience for him, as you can see from the excerpt below. I’m not sure he has forgiven me for it.
Over the next few hours, Eli watched in amazement as his wife executed waltzes, polkas, a schottische, a quadrille, several galops, and a Virginia reel. He realized that underneath the humble boarding house owner was a woman who had been trained in the social graces. Although she tried to spend time sitting on the side with him, other men had noticed Maggie’s social graces and the low cut of her gown. At one point, Eli finally took Maggie by the elbow and led her to the refreshment room, so she could rest – and he could control his jealousy.
In the new book, which has yet to have a working title other than “Untitled” (how original of me!), the little party planned at Greybeal House with Shelby as the musician will be less formal. There probably will be far more quadrilles (also known as square dances) than waltzes. The women will not have dance cards. No one will be in formal attire. It simply will be a fun time for all to kick back, relax, and celebrate the progress made on building new houses on Water, Fourth, and Main Streets after the devastation of the Great Fire (see A Good Community for that story).
As I mentioned in a March blog post, the new book also most likely will involve a health crisis. One of the diseases common to the Civil War era was typhoid fever. I have been mulling over a story about an outbreak in Blaineton for a couple of years now and it most likely will be the main plot of the story. Right now, I’m writing “getting to know you” scenes to establish the characters and set up the main plot. Sometimes I cut or change this early material as I see fit, so anything I write now is not firm.
All that said, my Monday blog will focus on typhoid fever and Typhoid Mary, as well as other people who spread the disease.
So that’s what been happening writing-wise for me in between working at home for First United Methodist Church, getting weekly groceries in a face mask, staying in touch with family and friends, and walking Vida the dog several times a day.
Until then, stay safe and well, friends.
 A dance like the polka.
 A square dance that, as its name implies, involves four couples.
 A dance for couples done to music having two beats to the bar. The dancers move quickly, hence the name “galop” or “gallop.”
 The venerable American country dance. The dancers begin by facing each other in two lines.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder